Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Free Lunch

      The following is a piece I wrote for More magazine a few years ago about meeting a high school friend for lunch and comparing our post-high school lives...       

            I watch people walk through the swinging doors of the restaurant, wondering if I’ll recognize her.  I haven’t seen Tracy in twenty-five years so it’s mostly guesswork.  What I do remember is her unusually deep voice.  I also remember how she peered over the rim of her glasses with a withering stare.  And I remember that Tracy seemed comfortable in her own skin which is rare for any high school senior, let alone a man-ish African American lesbian with a ‘fro that added a foot to her height.
            As each person enters, I strain to catch a telling detail in the dark human form that blocks the noon sun.  I’ve mistakenly raised my hand twice.  Once at a man who turned out to be white.  And then at a bearded man who was black, but not Tracy. 
            Pat is at home watching our baby, while I sit here in a booth tearing apart a damp beverage napkin.  Tracy and I have not spoken or written to each other in two and a half decades, excluding the short e-mail exchange that set our lunch date.  A high school friend of mine ran into her at an AIDS benefit and gave me her info.  I’m looking forward to seeing Tracy because I love seeing people from my past.  I’m infinitely curious about all people.  At parties I can sit in a corner with a wallflower for two hours, drawing her out.  Occasionally, I’ll get a gem of a story – the wallflower was a homeless junkie, for example, in the 70s. And her face was slashed in a street fight over a quart of orange juice.  Her entire face, she’ll say, was reconstructed by a famous surgeon who did pro-bono work on indigents.  That was before she met Jerry, she’ll say, pointing to a doughy accountant type.  And, she’ll add, her hair is actually a wig because she has that disease that compels her to pull out her hair obsessively strand by strand. 
            Even more fascinating than the stories of strangers, are the stories of people I once knew.  I love to predict how old friends will have changed (or not) before I see them again.  I go through my predictions with Pat before the meeting.  After the meeting, I run home to Pat to compare my predictions with the real thing.  I have lots of time to do this, since I’m largely an at-home mom who’s recently started writing stories in her spare time. 
            This morning, I told Pat my predictions about Tracy.  I decided that she is probably a science teacher (or doing something sciency, she was a whiz at Chemistry).  She probably plays softball on the weekends with twelve women she’s known for twenty years.  I predicted that the highlight of her week is the Saturday BBQ/kegger she and her girlfriends attend at a bar with a name that’s something like “Suzie Q”.  I predicted that she’s still smart and a little bit eccentric.  And I bet Pat that she’ll order the chicken burger.
More often than not, my predictions are pretty accurate.  Though I defy anyone to have known that Dana Havelstrom would become a Mormon.  She was a total pothead at school.
So I am driven by curiosity and my love for prognostication.  But when I meet people from my past, I also tend to find absolution.  Everyone’s bumbling along.  It’s possible the old friend has figured out one area of their life, but another quadrant is in shambles.  Cherry Simonsen looked like she had the whole package:  The successful genius husband, two gifted kids with straight teeth, a side-line repping a graphic artist – and her hair was still glossy and bouncy. After an hour and two martinis, however, she told me that her husband’s addicted to porn and one of her legs is shorter than the other.  A fact I never knew about in college. 
Tracy’s late.  I look through dancing dust particles at the shapes of people walking past.  I’m pretty sure I’m not looking for a foot-high Afro anymore.  But I am looking for a guy-type girl with a bulky plaid shirt and ill-fitting jeans.  Which is why I’m confused when a sleek African American woman in a pencil skirt and pumps appears in front of me. 
            “Brett,” she says, in a low drawn-out voice like Tibetan chant.
            “Tracy,” I say and start to rise before the table slices into my thighs, knocking me back into the banquet. 
            “Don’t’ get up,” she intones, slipping into the other side.
            As she settles, I get a better look at her.  It’s Tracy all right.  Her hair pressed into a neat bob, no glasses, starched white shirt brilliant against her dark skin.  She is now a stunning lipstick lesbian.  I wonder if she came directly from a makeover show.  Which is somewhat possible since we’re in Hollywood, a stone’s throw from where all the talk shows are shot.  As she puts her sunglasses into a stylish case, I glance around for cameras.  Maybe we’re being taped for a show called, “High School Buddies, I’m Hot and You’re Not.”
            I reach up to smooth my hair.  
            “I’m sorry I’m late,” says Tracy.  “I’m not used to things on this side of town.”
            “Of course,” I say, wondering what side of town she is used to.
            We pick up the menus, exchanging idle chat while we scan.   She tells me that she just came from a Saturday morning meeting.  I tell her that my son and husband are at home.  I wonder what her meeting was for but am afraid that it might be some twelve-steppy thing, so I don’t ask.  Recently I asked a new friend what meeting she was coming from and she said, “Narcotics Anonymous.”  Feeling the need to be polite about such an admission, I asked a series of invasive questions that ended with, “I heard that crystal meth eats away at the cartilage in your face.  How did you manage to keep yours?”
“What are you working on now?” I ask Tracy.  I figure that this phrasing of the question lends itself to answers that range from “A report for my boss” to “sobriety.”
            “I’m a lobbyist,” she says.
            “A lobbyist.  Wow.”
            I wonder what she lobbies for?  I look at the suit. She’s awfully put-together.  Maybe she’s in some really conservative field.  It’s not a twelve-steppy meeting she’s coming from; it’s a religious one.  She’s repressed her lesbianism and has become a  religious-righter or a scientologist or a pro-life zealot who meets on Saturdays to plan abortion clinic bombings.  She could be anything.  I haven’t seen the woman in a quarter of a century. 
            “I lobby for women’s health issues, especially for more government funding for breast cancer research,” Tracy says.
            “Wow,” I say. “That’s very…important.”
            Good Lord, I think, here’s someone who’s doing something significant with her life.  What’s she going to think when I tell her that I don’t do much of anything?  I quickly review all the small donations I’ve made to charity in the last year.  Maybe I should bring up the five dinners I buy for the Homeless Shelter downtown every Thanksgiving. 
            “I moved over to Breast Cancer after raising two billion dollars for AIDS research seven years ago.  Since that funding significantly led to the creation of several drug cocktails that are proving effective, I thought it would be time to do for breast cancer what I did for AIDS.”
            “Why not?” I say.  “When you have a talent…”
            I trail off.  I stare at my watery Diet Coke.  What have a done with my life? I flash on yesterday afternoon when I helped an older woman get up after taking a nasty spill on the sidewalk.  I could bring up being a Rape Victim Advocate, but that was ten years ago.  I wish I had cured something or gone to Africa to feed a village. 
            “What have you been doing the last twenty years?” Tracy asks, seeming to be genuinely interested. 
            “Well,” I say, pulling out a standard response that most often connects with your average asker, “I got married and traveled around with a show called ‘The Real Live Brady Bunch’ for a few years.”
            “’The Brady Bunch?’”
            “We re-enacted episodes of the show.”
            “I remember that show.”
            “Right.  Well, I played Carol the mom.  So, my husband and I did that for a few years,” I say, thinking of something redeeming I can throw in.  “I also became a member of the ACLU.”
            “Do you work on any committees?” She asks.
            They have committees?  I thought they just had a newsletter, which is pretty damn dry. 
            The server appears at our table, “Brett, what a treat to see you during the daytime.”
            I look up at Claudine who’s been working at this restaurant as long as I’ve been coming.  Claudine likes to regale anyone who will listen with her dating disasters.
            “You know that guy who was waiting for me at the bar last night?” she asks.
            I smile weakly at Tracy who smiles back enigmatically.  Either she truly finds slumming it with out-of-work actors charming, or she’s biding her time before she can return home to her life partner (who’s probably an attorney for poverty law) to complain about the shallow, purposeless lives most folks lead.              
            “Um, I’m not sure I saw that guy,” I say to Claudine.
            “Sure you did.  He was the one who was asking all the True or False questions about American Idol.”
            “Oh, him,” I say.  “I didn’t notice because I don’t watch reality TV,” 
            This is true.  I don’t watch that kind of TV.  I look to Tracy to see if I’ve scored a point here.
            “Bo got robbed,” says Tracy.
            “No shit,” Claudine says to her. 
            I watch them dive into an exchange about American Idol.  The conversation is animated, and as they prattle on I take this last bit of information about Tracy and try to slide it in with all the rest.  Tracy is a high-powered, pump wearing lesbian lobbyist who watches American Idol.
            I could still be right about the softball on the weekends. 
            After placing orders with Claudine (Tracy orders the Tai wrap instead of the Chicken Burger), we return to our conversation.
            “So you did that Brady Bunch show and then you did what?” asks Tracy.
            See here’s the problem with meeting old friends – they invariably ask about you. 
And while I’ve been a loving friend, a devoted wife, and good conversationalist, I can’t claim to have accomplished much in my life.  The only tangible things I seem to have produced are a child and debt.  When I graduated from high school, I intended to change the world.  I remember ordering the application for the Peace Corps, but I never got around to filling it out.  I started a feminist theatre collective in New York, but after two plays we lost steam.  I never had too much interest in making money, so I grabbed enough work to pay the bills and usually quit to travel around Europe for a bit.  And I married someone exactly like me.  Pat and I haven’t contributed much to the world, but lately I’ve consoled myself with the idea that all that lack of industry means our carbon emissions are low. 
            I tell Tracy the only thing that I can tell her.  I got married, worked around Hollywood for a bit, and had a baby.  I resist the urge to flip out one of the twelve pictures of him I carry around.  I know that baby pictures bore most sane adults senseless. Also, I have found that showing pictures of your children to childless people invariably leads to them showing you pictures of their dog.  Whenever anyone does this to me, I can’t think of anything more interesting to say than, “That’s quite a dog.”  To which they almost always say something like, “Doesn’t it look like he’s smiling?”  And I never see it.  I never see the dog’s smile, or the air of contempt, or wisdom, or sweetness the owner claims to see.  I only see a dog.  Just a dog.  Which is why I know that people who look at my kid pictures see just a kid. 
            “Children sound like a lot of fun,” says Tracy without a trace of irony.  “Being a parent gets such a bad rap among my college friends, who are still the women I spend my time with.”
            “A bad rap?”
            “I don’t think it’s fair really. If you want children I think you should have them.”           
            “Thanks,” I say.  Although I’m not sure what I’m thanking her for.  I’m surprised to find that I’m not remotely offended by any of this.  I’m fascinated.  Tracy lives in such a different world – one so far removed from nap schedules and play dates -- that I feel like I’ve been given a backstage pass to The People Who Run the Country Show. 
            “Most of my women friends see marriage and parenthood as compromising our promise,” she says.
            “You made a promise?” 
            Does she belong to some black lesbianic sorority that extracts the promise from its members that they won’t procreate?  That’s so hardcore.  I think about all the groups I’ve turned down because of the most benign of rules.  Recently, I couldn’t attend the second meeting of a mom group that required bringing snack for the snack table. I was too afraid I’d forget one day and get snubbed. 
            “Our ‘intellectual’ promise.  Our ‘creative’ promise,” says Tracy.  “We didn’t make and actual promise.”
            “Right,” I say, relieved.  “Because that might be illegal.”
            “Requiring someone to promise that they won’t have kids.  It’s a little…” I want to say that it’s a “little Nazi-ish” but I stop myself in the nick of time.  Because I do realize that I haven’t a clue what I’m talking about here.  I’m sounding like an idiot.  I search for an end to my thought, “…to promise that you won’t have kids is a little…a little…”
            Tracy jumps in with, “No one’s promised anything, Brett. It’s simply that we were a group of black women at Yale University who were determined to make our mark.  Politically and Socially.  Most of us have high powered careers now that give us an opportunity to shape the future.”
            “That’s great,” I say. 
            “And children,” she says, “family – gets in the way of all that.”
            “Yeah.  Kids get in the way of shaping the future.  That’s true.”
            I register the contradiction, but don’t press.  She’s talking about something different.  I might be shaping the future through my child – by proxy – but what am I doing now?  I re-promise myself to sign more e-petitions. 
            We pause to poke at our food and I mentally scramble for a subject that would change the course of this conversation. 
            “I think I might be writing a book,” I say.
            “That’s great, “ says Tracy, putting down her Tai wrap.  “I wrote a book a couple of years ago.  And I’m thinking of writing another one.”
            “Wow.  You wrote a book?  Was it published?”
            “Oh, yes,” says Tracy. “And my publisher keeps hounding me for a second.”
            I’m afraid to ask the title of the book.  It’s probably something like Tracy Majors’ Master Work on Curing Cancer, Poverty, the Ozone, and the Common Cold.  I hope Tracy doesn’t ask me what my book is about.
            “What’s your book about?” she asks.
            “Oh it’s a nothing little thing,” I say.  “It’s just a bitty little project that’s been cooking in my little head about moms and kids.  It’s really nothing.  I can’t believe I brought it up.”
            “Sounds fun,” She says.
            “Not really,” I say, reflexively, trying to make my work smaller, more minuscule, than the most insignificant thing.  Thereby, of course, making myself smaller, more insignificant.  It strikes me that Tracy has not pronounced judgment on anything I’ve offered.  It’s only been me -- damning myself with every comparison. 
            Tracy smiles, “In case you want to look up my book, it’s called Lord Hammersmith and the Stranger.”
            “I’m sorry.  ‘Lord Hammersmith’?  Did he discover or cure something?”
            Tracy laughs, “I don’t think so.  I made him up.  The book’s a bodice-ripper.”
            “A bodice-ripper?”
            “A historical romance.”
            “Right.  Right.  A bodice-ripper.  I know what that is.”
            Relief floods me.  Tracy wrote a bodice-ripper.  She may be curing breast cancer but she wrote a bodice-ripper and she watches American Idol.  Tracy is all things.  She is a cancer curer, but she also watches bad TV and writes bad books.  This is the chink I’ve been looking for, like Cherry’s porn addicted husband. Finding that chink restores my faith in the inherent imperfection of each individual.  Thereby making it OK to be me.  The wildly imperfect me.  I feel equilibrium descend like a benediction. 
Later, much later, I will see this scene entirely differently.  I will recognize my search for the chink -- my search for absolution -- to be a sedative.   A sedative that dulls the desire to carve out a place for myself in the continuum.  I will start to understand that finding the chink in someone else’s life, in no way mends my own.  I’ll also note that watching bad TV and writing bad books isn’t much of a chink.  But self-awareness is a gift time gives us.  And right now I’m mourning the loss of time, rather than embracing its benefits.
The sun has moved and no longer pours through the doors as they swing open.  In the fading light of the restaurant, in the glow of mutual imperfection, I am grateful hit an easy conversational rhythm with my old friend.
            I tell her that Spencer’s fourth tooth just came in.  She tells me that she’s meeting with Hilary Clinton about thermal imaging.  I tell her that I’ve started taking yoga.  She tells me about a new job offer that would require her overseeing fourteen AIDS vaccine-testing sites in Africa.  I tell her that we still go to the Midwest at Christmas. She says that molecular science supports the possibility that we will eventually beam ourselves to another location like Captain Kirk. 
            She glances at her watch and I think that we’ve been here a long time and she probably has to get back to her girlfriend.  Maybe they have a softball game this afternoon. 
            Tracy glances up from her watch, “I’ve got a flight to DC at four.”
            I roll my eyes like I know, “Yeah.  All that traveling in the lobbying biz.”
            “Not this time,” she says.  “This is pleasure.  My man and I are going to the Adirondacks for three days.”
            “You’ve got a man?”
            “The same one for thirteen years.  He’s a judge.”
            “Wow.  A judge,” I say, as I watch Tracy give a gold credit card to Claudine. 
            “I’ll get it,” she says. 
            I don’t fight her for the check.  Usually I would, but things have been tight.  And Pat will be happy it’s a free lunch.  

Next week -- I process the lunch with Pat. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

When an Egg Wants to be Poached

            Several years ago, I faced the truth. I was a hopeless failure at cooking. Perhaps I was too lazy. Maybe I lacked native talent. But what really sealed my fate was my inability to follow directions. When faced with instructions or applications of any kind, I melt down. I start to hyperventilate when the cashier at the grocery store hands me a rewards card application to fill out. I’ve been known to giggle and cry over a simple schematic of a battery charger. I perceive instructions as a test that I have already failed before I even begin.
So imagine my delight when I got a book called, An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler from a friend this Christmas. Instead of giving tons of recipes with ingredients I’ve never heard of, the book shares a global philosophy of cooking – one in which every bit of food is used for something (don’t throw out those broccoli ends, they want to be boiled in soup!) and anyone can cook a meal if they can boil water. In fact, the first chapter is titled “How to Boil Water”.  Finally! A book that doesn’t presuppose that I know how to boil water. Because I don’t. Didn’t – before I read the book, that is. How, for example, was I to know that water always wants to be salted?
In the book, the food is always telling Tamar what it wants. Most often it wants to be drizzled in olive oil. Which I consider a bit of a no brainer, since I could probably wolf down a bottle cap if it was drizzled in olive oil, especially if it was nestled on a cracker and topped with shaved cheese. Tamar likes to shave a “hard cheese” over things that are already drizzled. That said, she does seem to get more surprising demands from her food. And, quite often, the food tells her that it wants to be the center of attention. Especially Mayonnaise who, apparently, has felt much maligned for years.  Also – who knew – eggs confess that they love turning light fare into an entire meal.
Tamar’s enchanting prose and her anthropomorphization of food makes me feel like I’ve fallen down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole. Now, instead of the kitchen seeming like scorched earth where nothing survives, it’s a magical place where food talks and boiling water is an art form. AND I don’t need instructions, just common sense and sensitivity toward my food.
First off, I boiled and salted water for a few days tasting it at different temperatures. Tamar writes that Julia Child recommended that cooks do this to get used to the different tastes of water. I couldn’t tell any difference in taste really, but I did develop a love for boiling. For days, I boiled, salted, and tasted while wearing a cute checkered apron that I bought just for the purpose. I felt very continental. The kids would implore me to help with their homework, and I would have to tell them, “Not now, sweeties, I’m boiling water and you know that it doesn’t want to be left alone.”
Once I mastered the boiling, I advanced to slipping the vegetables into the water – not plopping them violently, because they don’t want that. According to Tamar, most vegetables don’t want to sit in each other’s water either, but you should still save it for your pasta. I boiled some carrots and then used the carrot water for spaghetti. I couldn’t taste the carrots on the spaghetti but simply knowing that there was a tinge of carrot essence on my pasta made me feel like a roaring success. Already, I was blending different tastes from different food families. Without, I remind you, following a single recipe. I simply boiled, salted, gently eased the carrots into the water, removed them with a slotted spoon and then added spaghetti to the carrot water. Tamar loves the slotted spoon, by the way. It’s gentle on your vegetables and it doesn’t waste any pre-boiled salted and flavored water.
The second chapter is on eggs and I was surprised to discover how much I’ve underestimated them all these years. Place an egg drizzled in oil on top of anything and you have jazz. This excited me to no end because in all of my domestic endeavors, I am searching for that little detail that will make something look fantastic but will require virtually no effort on my part. Tamar claims that a hard-boiled egg can do the trick. But I wanted something a little fancier. Something that could fool potential dinner guests into thinking that I know what I’m doing.
Enter the elegant, deceptively simple poached egg. My pulse quickened as Tamar described easing a poached egg on the top of an ordinary salad (drizzling it, of course) and it then becoming part of the salad dressing when the yolk was broken.
Genius. Fucking genius. I could throw (not “throw”, sorry  “rest”)…I could rest a poached egg on top of pretty much anything and make it sing. According to Tamar, poaching an egg was simple. All I had to do was simmer my salted water in a pot, add some vinegar, and slide my egg into it from a cup. In about four minutes, the egg would be done and it would want to come out. I would ease my slotted spoon under it, raise it from the simmering water, and rest it on my salad or rice or pasta or toast. I envisioned myself mastering the poached egg so well that I could spontaneously invite someone over for lunch. No matter how slim the available fare in my refrigerator might be, I would add that poached egg and dazzle my friend.
I tied my apron around my waist, turned the dial on the radio to a classical station, and set to work. I laid out the pan, the vinegar, the salt, two eggs, drizzling oil, the slotted spoon, and the paper towel that would absorb water from the perfect eggs before they enhanced my prepared arugula salad.

Ten minutes later, the kitchen looked like I had tried to poach my egg in the eye of a tornado. Pools of water had collected all over the linoleum floor. Pans were strewn over the counter and even the floor. Salad fixings had scattered. The window that I had opened when the smoke detector went off let in a cold wind that rustled the unfurled roll of paper towels festooning the disaster area. The radio emitted only static and I could hear my children yelling from the living room – was it safe to move around the apartment now?
Leaning against the sink, I brushed my vinegar soaked bangs out of my eyes with the back of my hand. Even two weeks later, I would be unable to piece together the sequence of events that led to the devastation. I do know that very early on my eggs didn’t want to float; instead they wanted to adhere to the bottom of the pan like it was their only safe haven. No amount of nudging, prodding, or finally chipping, could pry them loose.
This setback did not, however, dissuade me from my poached egg fantasy. For several mornings in a row, I would shuffle the children off to school and return to my kitchen (The boys had made it clear that they didn’t want to be around during future attempts to poach). Like Kierkegaard’s Knight of Infinite Faith, I went through the same steps, believing that today would be the day. And every failure only stiffened my resolve. On the third day, I had to throw out my best pan when I couldn’t remove the layer of burnt egg whites hardened on the bottom of it. I bought more scouring powder and moved onto another pan, then another. I reread the egg chapter and looked up poaching eggs on Youtube. Again, the Youtube man made it look so simple. He promised that if I did everything the way he did, I’d have a goddamned poached fucking egg.
A week and a half in, I bought a non-stick pan and turned a corner. The egg still wanted desperately to stick – but it couldn’t. VICTORY! Small victory. I still broke the yolk sending a ribbon of hardening yellow goo into my simmering vinegar water.

The day that I poached my first egg started out just like the others. There was nothing overtly remarkable about it. Certainly nothing that portended my greatest domestic achievement ever -- even besting that golden week in August of 1997 when I replaced a plug on the hall lamp, patched a pair of Pat’s jeans, and harvested basil from the plant I had grown from seedlings. The sky outside the kitchen window was overcast without rainbows or shafts of light touching the earth. When I retrieved the egg from the refrigerator it was as cold to the touch as those that had gone before.  The classical station on the radio played at the same volume as it had for weeks. And the music was not interrupted by news of a mysterious meteor whizzing past us in space. Yes, it was a day like all the others.
Except for the result of my solitary endeavor.
Perhaps I let the water simmer longer than I had before. Maybe I added more vinegar. Or maybe, just maybe, it was simply my turn in the long line of seekers yearning for greatness. We know many of their names: Marie Curie, Alexander Graham Bell, Leonardo Da Vinci, Mike Nesmith’s mother. But there are others in that line whose names we don’t know. I was one of those. A domestic warrior who had finally, finally, finally had her day.
I eased the poached egg onto my salad, drizzled it with just the right amount of olive oil, and sat down to eat.